We arrived in the parking lot just before daybreak with just enough light to see the sign marking the wooded trailhead to the falls. The six of us walked down the trail and out onto the suspension bridge overlooking the pothole falls that had drawn us here. The round potholes formed as a result of a continuous eddy swirling sand and pebbles against the shale scouring their circular path. Today, the flooded river raged right over the tops of the potholes, obscuring almost every one. There was some disappointment, but little did we know all that this area held in store for us.
As the sun just broke the horizon the sky turned a soft blush pink for the briefest of moments. We all headed off in different directions to try to capture this early morning light and see what else this land had to offer.
I left the falls and headed toward the rocky beach, strewn with logs from Gitche Gumee’s infamous storms.
Dark, menacing clouds were far off on the horizon with an occasional flash of lightning in the distance. Too far off to be of concern, I thought. At the mouth of the Presque Isle River, a birch tree holding its golden fall leaves leaned over the water. I played with slow shutter speeds to blur the motion of the water, mapping the currents and eddies of the river’s flow. The wind rattled the treetops and added to the dramatic effects of the slow motion.
I turned to head back into the dark pine forest of the isle. The river splits near its mouth here creating this small isle. However, except during the high water from spring run-off, one can walk across the dry shale riverbed to the other side of the river, making it more of a peninsula. The North Country Trail, running 4600 miles from North Dakota to New York, follows this path across the isle.
This small isle has thin stands of large, old pines in its center with hardwoods in the sun on the periphery. The shady center is home to lichens, moss, ferns and pine squirrels. The lichens intricately decorate the ornate bark of the old pines. I found a beautiful piece of bark sitting resting the pine needle carpet of the forest floor.
Perfect for a project I have! As I stooped to stow my treasure in my pack, I began to hear raindrops falling on the canopy. Lightly first, then louder. Protected by the trees I had time to gear up and stay dry before the skies opened up. I guess that storm wasn’t so far off after all.
I stood at the base of a thick pine. I’d noticed the east side of the trunk was dry and chose that as my spot to wait out the deluge. A pine squirrel, not to be deterred by a bit of water, ran up to the base of the tree next to me about 10 feet away. She looked toward me as she patted the ground, ever so carefully with her front feet, burying something to be retrieved later. As the rain eased up I walked over to see what she’d buried only to find the entrance to her home! She chattered away, chastising me (it seems to be a favorite past time of the pine squirrel) as I took a few photos before leaving her in peace.
On the edge of the isle overlooking the river gorge, mosses cover the exposed roots of the birches where they crawl across the ground. Ferns dot the landscape. Further up the river the laminated nonesuch shale lines a small canyon. In the spring there is a 50-foot waterfall here, but now it is dry. The river runs southwest now and it’s this dry west branch that permits crossing to the other side. The point of the isle that faces upstream is terraced in shale which is now littered with fallen leaves. I spent a long time along this section of the river photographing these leaves that held beads of water from the morning rain.
Everywhere I looked was a new micro-landscape to be explored. The rocky ledges here are home to miniature forests of cup lichens, mosses and mushrooms.
I crossed the bare stone riverbed, wet from the rain but not at all slippery, and climbed up the ravine on the other side. The sky was beginning to brighten as the clouds lifted and I removed some layers before hiking up the east side trail. From high up on the crest of the gorge, I had a discreet view through the trees of some of the cascades and low falls of the upper river. It was quiet up there, away from the roar of the falls and rumble of the river. I was alone in the woods. With this snake. And this toad.
The forest floor is open, dotted with the broad leaves of long since bloomed wildflowers. I can see a long way into the woods of the Porcupine Wilderness, imaging the creatures that must live back there. My trail is interrupted frequently by mazes of large tree roots from pines and hardwoods. It’s a mile up to the next bridge crossing and then another mile back down the river to where I’m supposed to meet up with my friends in 45 minutes. Without enough time to hike the loop, I headed back the way I came.
As I crossed the suspension bridge, I stopped again, in awe of the full river leaving only glimpses of those famous potholes. At the top of the steps to the parking lot, a remarkably, thoroughly shredded fallen tree looks to be a regular stop for a black bear. They claw at the trunks to get at the meaty bugs inside leaving this distinctly shredded trunk. I stopped for one last picture before meeting up with my friends in the parking lot, now full of cars. Time for lunch. If there’s a better way to spend a fall morning in Michigan’s upper peninsula, I can’t think of it.